Michael Olunga

Harambee Stars coach Engin Firat (left) with skipper Michael Olunga during their 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifier against Rwanda at the Nyayo National Stadium on November 15, 2021.

| Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

How repeat mistakes cost Harambee Stars dearly

What you need to know:

  • Plan or guess work? Coaches Mulee and Firat called up 65 players for qualifiers but only 25 were fielded even as both said talent abounded in Kenya
  • Kenya fail to learn from history as haphazard managerial changes and questionable team selection puts paid to elusive World Cup dream

“It is the hope that kills you”, is a famous saying among football fans.

This statement best sums up the feeling by Kenyans after their beloved Harambee Stars yet again fell short in meeting their expectations after failing to progress to the play-offs stage of the 2022 Qatar World Cup qualifiers.

Kenya was drawn against Mali, Uganda and Rwanda in Group “E”, and many felt this was not such a tough pool and Stars were well capable of redeeming themselves after failing to clinch a ticket to the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations.

But once again, the high hopes were all in vain as the Harambee Stars came tumbling down with another lacklustre campaign that saw them  soak in nine goals while scoring four.

Harambee Stars’ poor display coupled with a disastrously gung ho Football Kenya Federation (FKF) hurtled us to a reality that never stops stalking us -- our propensity to ignore historical lessons and repeat innocent mistakes.

Kenya’s 1998 Fifa World Cup qualifying campaign serves as a blueprint for conquering football's Mount Everest.

Using meagre resources at his disposal, the late Reinhard Fabisch demonstrated what good leadership, astute scouting and unbiased team selection can bring, as he guided Stars to the final of the 1987 All-Africa Games.

Kenya lost by a solitary goal to African giants Egypt in a tense final at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani in Nairobi.

That 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign pitted Kenya against three West African opponents (Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Nigeria) who boasted prodigious talents.

However, Fabisch’s game plan and strategy saw Stars learning from mistakes quickly and taking advantage of factors that diluted the fear those intimidating encounters induced.

During that high-flying period, Fabisch built a new team after a disappointing start, ensuring Stars collected points against Burkina Faso's and hot favourites Nigeria.

He gave Stars sweet vengeance against Vladimir Muntyan's Guinea with a 1-0 win in Nairobi after a 3-1 loss in their opening match in Conakry.

When a star-studded Nigeria visited Nairobi in January 1997, Fabisch gave the late Shuaibu Amodu no breathing space as Kenya registered a morale-boosting 1-1 draw urged on by boisterous, capacity crowd at the giant Moi International Sports Centre.

The Nigerian Football Association took offence with the result and replaced Amodu with Frenchman Philippe Troussier. The White Witch Doctor guided Nigeria to their second World Cup with a 3-0 win over Kenya in Surulere, effectively ended Kenya’s dream of playing in the World finals in France.

Afcon 1998 hosts, Burkina Faso, had Bulgarian Ivan Voutov in charge. Despite his stubbornness, Fabisch rallied his troops to a comeback 4-3 victory.

A 4-2 victory away to the Burkinabes in a dead rubber game, coupled with finishing three points behind Nigeria, validated the belief that Kenya would have qualified for France '98 if Fabisch had more than nine months with the team.

But weak resolve to implement lessons from that inspiring campaign under Fabisch has rendered Stars eternal tenants of the game's waste bin.

The 2022 Fifa World Cup qualification draw of January 21, 2020, united us with familiar foes, Rwanda and Uganda, and a seemingly meek Malian side.

On paper, the draw was a ticket to at the very least the final round of qualifiers,  but we started scoring own goals in October 2020 when the now disbanded FKF replaced Francis Kimanzi with Jacob "Ghost" Mulee.

Then, Mulee who is best remembered for guiding Kenya to the 2004 Afcon was making a return to the touchline after close to 10 years hiatus. In fact, he was now better known for his work as a radio commentator than a football tactician.

FKF in their usual opaque nature gave no concrete reason for the change as the new-found hope in Stars' progress hit stormy waters.

Kenyan football lovers, including former players have rebuked the irrational decision to date.

“Kimanzi was doing well until FKF sacked him for unknown reasons. He had laid the foundation for building a competitive team and he only needed more support to scout talents that would have strengthened the side,” said former Harambee Stars striker Elijah Onsika.

Mulee's damned eight-match reign ended in another unexplained controversial exit after a 1-1 draw away to a rudderless Rwanda that followed a barren draw at home to an unfashionable Uganda side.

Instead of replacing Mulee with a proven coach, FKF settled on 51-year old Turk Engin Firat who had no previous experience in African football.

FKF hired the Turk, who had win:draw:loss ratio of 0:9:2 with Moldova, on a baffling two-month contract arguing that the duration protects them against financial losses they may incur if they parted ways unceremoniously. 

Onsika who is the Gusii chairman of the Kenya Football Coaches Association termed Firat's appointment as laughable.

“Managing a national team is a serious task that requires committing to a long-term project. It is funny that Firat accepted a deal which puts to question his credibility,” he stated.
On the contrary, Firat's record as manager guaranteed almost zero protection against losses with no consequences to himself.

He took over guiding Harambee Stars on the back of a 21-match winless streak that stretched to December 24, 2013, when he managed Saipa in the Iranian top-flight.

He ended that poor run barren with a 2-1 win in a dead rubber game against Rwanda after orchestrating a 1-1 draw laced with schadenfreude (as far as Kenyans were concerned) against Uganda in Kampala.

It was the epitome of "bad" neighbourliness as Stars ended the Cranes' World Cup hopes.
Kenya’s 6-0 aggregate loss (5-0 and 1-0) to Mali enriched the history books with two new records.

Ibrahima Kone became the fourth African player to score a hat-trick in the first half of a World Cup qualifying match.

Also, Kenya equalled its worst-ever Fifa World Cup qualifying defeat -- a 5-0 loss to Tanzania in 1980.

No doubt learning from the 1998 campaign, Stars would have been successful in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

They needed to win all their home matches, beat the group’s underdog (Rwanda) at their turf and secure a draw against nemesis Uganda and Mali.

It is a view Harambee Stars captain Michael Olunga shares.

"Going forward, we must win home matches to stand a better chance of qualifying," said the Al Duhail striker who managed three goals in the qualifying campaign.

Haphazard managerial changes and questionable team selection also hampered Kenya's progress in this campaign.

Mulee and Firat called up 65 players but fielded only 25 of them.

Even though Olunga lauded the inclusion of new young players in the Harambee Stars set-up, the notable exclusions of experienced players like former captain Victor Wanyama, Ayub Timbe, and Johanna Omollo raised questions on the criteria used to select players.

“I am impressed that many local players received a chance to showcase themselves at a big stage. The experience will prepare them well for the next assignment,” Olunga said.

Firat also praised the benefits of having a large squad but advised it should be within a clearly defined structure.

“Kenya has enough talent to produce 40 players for the national team. A healthy national team should have 20 outstanding players, 10 able replacements, and 10 budding youngsters. This can be achieved by setting training centres with good pitches all over the country where players can meet regularly to sharpen their skills,” he explained.

Another thing that hampered Harambee Stars' progress was coaches fielding players out of position like Joash Onyango playing as a right-back against Mali.

Former Harambe Stars captain Austin Oduor sees that as signs of a disjointed team paying the price of FKF's failure to settle on a long-term coach.

“Each new coach always comes with a different philosophy that players have to adapt to. It takes time to master a coach's methods and when changes happen too quickly, players become confused," Oduor said.

Firat who has since returned to Turkey while awaiting communication from the Justice (retired) Aaron Ringera's caretaker committee, on whether his contract will be renewed, said with proper scouting and structures, Harambee Stars can soar high.

“When we talk about the future, I think the national team needs a training centre. With the immense talent we have in this country, we should have elite groups next to this training centre,” said Firat.

“Bring the players once or twice a month from the clubs and work with them on a high level on good pitches. If we do all these things then we can have very good teams that can ably compete against the best in Africa.”


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.